Editor’s note: TPG’s Matt Moffitt sailed on a free trip provided by Vacaya. The opinions expressed below are entirely his and weren’t subject to review by the tour operator.
You’ve probably heard of gay cruises and wondered how they differ from “traditional” cruises. Are they open to straight people? Is it all about partying? What about the hook-up element?
I recently sailed with tour operator Vacaya on a one-week gay cruise departing from Fort Lauderdale and heading to the Caribbean via Celebrity Cruises‘ Celebrity Reflection cruise ship. For context, I’m a white, cisgender, gay, 35-year-old man. I had a lot of questions about what to expect, given this was my second cruise ever and my first one with a queer tour operator.
Here are the top things I’d want someone considering or planning their first gay cruise to know.
People are friendly
The first thing that struck me about the sailing was that almost everyone was smiling and eager to interact. As an Australian living in the U.S. for almost a decade, I generally find Americans to be open, talkative and curious. This cruise was like that … on steroids.
I would have found it overwhelming if I weren’t an extrovert, but since I’m a social butterfly, I was in heaven.
Tip: Taking the stairs between levels on the ship is a great way to keep in shape. However, opt for the elevators if you are searching for moments of lighthearted connection. Waiting for an elevator to arrive at your floor and then jumping in with other guests gives you a quick opportunity for some enjoyable small talk.
Partying is front and center
The rumors are spot on. Gay cruises have tons of parties, sometimes multiple a day. If you’re on a weeklong sailing, it’s important to pace yourself.
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Most of the parties on my cruise took place outside by the pool and started at 10:30 p.m. The late start gave enough time for passengers to eat dinner, attend an evening show and get dressed in theme.
Highlights on my cruise included a Super Bowl party (the day we boarded), a traffic light party (the gay cruise version of an icebreaker activity, see below) and the “She’s A Mess” party on the final afternoon (where passengers donned one piece from each costume they’d worn throughout the week).
It’s also a good idea to plan your outfits well in advance — people get really into the party themes. You can find information about theme nights on your tour operator’s website.
Going into the cruise, one of my biggest questions was, “Would people be hooking up all over the ship in public places?” On this particular Vacaya cruise, I did not see anything like that. (I can’t speak for other sailings, though.) However, sexual expression was a prominent feature of the cruise — and I loved it.
I appreciated the three types of lanyards that Vacaya offered upon boarding. It was the traffic light system: red for “taken,” yellow for “it’s complicated/maybe” and green for “available.” This made it easy to understand what kind of interaction someone wanted. At the traffic light party on the second night, I estimated 60% of the passengers were dressed in green, 30% in yellow and the remaining 10% in red.
One unique feature Vacaya had on this cruise was a late-night “dark room” on the rooftop basketball court. It was very popular.
The crew won’t judge you
Cruise ships hire crew members from around the world, with many coming from more conservative countries. I wasn’t sure how they’d react to thousands of openly gay men taking over their cruise ship.
Once on board, I realized my concerns were overblown. The Celebrity Cruises crew — waiters, room stewards, bartenders — were consistently friendly. I never sensed any judgment from them. They didn’t even bat an eyelid when a drunk gay guy wearing nothing but underwear came to a bar to order a drink. I’m not saying I was that guy.
Choose your cruise carefully
The one major lesson I learned is that it’s important to do your research.
On this cruise, I sometimes felt like a fish out of water. At 35, I was one of the youngest on the sailing. Vacaya skews older (think: Gen X and boomers), whereas I’ve heard Atlantis gay cruises attract mainly twinks and daddies.
Of the well-known queer cruises, Atlantis is for your circuity gays, and Olivia is for queer women. Vacaya skews toward a more inclusive and welcoming experience for everyone (although it needs more work in this area). Body positivity was an obvious component of my Vacaya cruise, and I heard many passengers say they appreciated this.
Queer travelers account for 5% to 10% of the global tourism market, according to the World Tourism Organization. Couple that with the huge growth in cruising over the past decade (excluding the pandemic), and it’s obvious that cruise and tour operators can earn a lot from catering to LGBTQI+ travelers.
For example, Fort Lauderdale saw four sold-out LGBTQI+ cruises in February 2023. Atlantis and Vacaya had one each, and tour operator Olivia had two women-focused cruises. Atlantis’ voyage on Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas was the largest gay cruise ever, with more than 5,400 passengers.
If you want to go on a gay cruise, I’d suggest booking early to secure your place and take advantage of early bird discounts. With growing demand, I hope to see an increase in the number and type of sailings offered, giving queer travelers more themed cruise options.
Diversity and inclusion is a work in progress
In my opinion, the cruise was too heavily skewed to a specific demographic. I estimated that at least 90% of the passengers on my cruise were white, cisgender, gay men from the U.S. — and that was on Vacaya, one of the more “inclusive” cruise operators.
The organizers clearly have a strong passion for and commitment to making their experiences more inclusive and diverse. They teared up when talking about their origin story and what they envision for their future experiences.
However, it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. Vacaya has a financial incentive to cater to its base market of white, affluent gay men. But, its future growth lies in providing opportunities that broaden the company’s reach to other tribes in the larger community, such as queer people of color, transgender and gender-nonconforming folx, and women.
For Vacaya to achieve that goal, those groups must make bookings and come on board. However, they’ll be hesitant to book if they don’t think there will be people like them on board. It’s a work in progress.
On my cruise, I did see a glimmer of Vacaya’s future.
One evening, I sat behind a black trans woman and a plus-size, white cisgender woman in a wheelchair to watch a show in the ship’s auditorium. When drag queen Alyssa Edwards began lip-syncing on stage to “This Is Me” from “The Greatest Showman,” they reached out to hold hands as they sang along. These are the moments Vacaya hopes to deliver to more queer travelers in the future.
Gay cruises are more expensive than regular cruises
Gay or queer cruises cost more on average than your everyday cruise because they offer premium LGBTQI-focused entertainment, such as drag queens and world-renowned DJs on each sailing. The charter company (Vacaya, in this case) needs to pay not only the cruise line but also the specialized entertainment — and turn a profit.
Make sure you save up your cash for the room, taxes, gratuities, drink packages and shore excursions — it can really add up.
For example, Vacaya’s pricing for its weeklong 2024 Caribbean cruise starts at around $4,000 per room for a windowless inside cabin (same price for one or two people; includes taxes and gratuities). That’s roughly 50% more than a “regular” cruise for the same duration and on the same ship, where pricing starts at $2,600.
Many people don’t explore the ports
Based on my observations and conversations with other shipmates, I don’t think many passengers got off the ship in every port. Perhaps that’s because our itinerary featured four back-to-back port stops. Or, my shipmates were too hungover to go out or wanted to prioritize time on the ship they had paid so dearly for. Whatever the reason, many people were at the lunch buffet and lounging poolside during our port stops.
To be honest, I only got off at Grand Cayman and stayed on board in Cozumel, Mexico; Belize City, Belize; and Roatán, Honduras (all of which I’d visited on previous trips).
It turns out my observations were correct. The Vacaya cruise organizers confirmed that on big-ship Caribbean cruises, many guests typically stay on board in one or two ports. On the company’s luxury cruises — which focus more on bucket-list destinations — and Mediterranean cruises, a higher percentage of guests get off the ship daily.
For the record, people who did get off the ship didn’t miss much. People mostly used port days to enjoy more pool time and work out at the gym (which, surprisingly, never got busy on my cruise). Vacaya schedules its marquee activities for when the ship is sailing.
Wash your hands
The worst part of the cruise? I picked up norovirus about halfway through the sailing and was bedridden for the final three days.
Norovirus is a contagious virus that spreads through direct contact with an infected person or surface and causes diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomach pain. The self-contained, high-traffic nature of a cruise ship makes it susceptible to outbreaks, and on a gay cruise, frequent incidences of person-to-person contact can increase your chances of getting sick.
My most unpleasant memories from this cruise included gathering the energy to make my way from my cabin to the buffet to eat something, anything, that would fill me up before my whole world came crashing down again. Picture the wedding dress-fitting scene from “Bridesmaids.” I was Kristen Wiig desperately trying to pretend she was enjoying her almonds — all in front of hundreds of other gay men. Not a peak life moment for me.
The best way to avoid catching norovirus is to wash and sanitize your hands frequently. I thought I was doing a good job of that, but apparently, it wasn’t enough. This is a public service announcement to wash your hands more than you think you need to the next time you’re on a cruise.
Many passengers come back time and again
Vacaya has a return rate of more than 70%, which is even more notable given it has only been around for five years. (This was its fifth birthday celebration.) People talk with their feet — and their wallets. If they’re returning, they must enjoy the experience and want to reconnect with friends and lovers they met on previous cruises.
If you enjoy your first cruise, it’s worth keeping your eyes out for any early bird discounts for future sailings the line may offer during the final couple of days you are on board.
With LGBTQI+ rights under a sustained attack, it was refreshing to get out into the open ocean with other queer folx and let our pride flags fly. The feeling of dancing in the warm Caribbean breeze with thousands of other queer people — and a supportive, open-minded crew — without fear of judgment, violence or harassment is something I believe every queer person deserves.